Showing posts with label current events. Show all posts
Showing posts with label current events. Show all posts

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Some argle-bargle about Antonin Scalia


It’s kind of weird: I’m essentially a single issue voter—Supreme Court nominees!—when it comes to the presidency, but it seems ghoulish when I say plainly what I mean by that: I vote for the presidential candidate who is most likely to nominate people to the Supreme Court I’ll like when one of the justices kicks the bucket. It’s for exactly this situation that I voted for Barack Obama, but man, it sure feels mighty macabre when it happens.

Anyway, I disagree with virtually everything Scalia has said professionally, and even among the vanishingly small number of things with which he and I agreed, I’ve always thought he expressed himself, likely intentionally, in the most dickish way possible.

But I’ll say this: when Stephen Colbert did his amazing in-your-face roast of George W. Bush and the D.C. establishment during the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, Scalia was seemingly the only person in the room who had a sense of humor about himself. So there’s that.



Anyway, enough argle-bargle from me. I hope Scalia’s friends and family will be okay—losing a loved one always sucks, especially when large swaths of the country will greet the news with a fair bit of morbid joy. But given Scalia’s fierce pugnacity and often gleeful trolling of his ideological opposites, I think he’d take it as the very sincere and high compliment I intend it as when I say that it’s a relief that the old Grumpy Bear’s finally off the Supreme Court.

Friday, June 26, 2015

It is so ordered

Photo: Ludovic Bertron via Wikipedia (CC BY)

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of same-sex marriage—a.k.a., marriage—today in a 5-4 decision. Now is as good a time as any to re-post this picture of former Sen. Rick Santorum, autographed by sex advice columnist/LGBT activist/neologism coiner Dan Savage with his best wishes.



It’s pretty much the only autograph for which I’ve ever asked.

* * *

And a small anecdote: When I was in high school in 2006, my school district, as policy, blocked all LGBT-related websites, including those that provided resources and support for LGBT youth. (In what I’m sure was a complete coincidence, access to the websites of right-wing groups featuring anti-LGBT material—including Focus on the Family, the American Family Association, and NARTH—were completely accessible.)

My high school’s online newspaper published an article about the policy; subsequently, our online newspaper got blocked as well.

Anti-LGBT web filtering policies and we were still stuck using Internet Explorer. Dark days indeed.

I remember when we were publishing that article, we felt kind of badass and edgy and controversial. I’m grateful that, thanks in part to five members of the Supreme Court today, sticking up for LGBT students doesn’t feel badass and edgy and controversial anymore; it just feels like the right, expected, common sense thing to do.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Slovakia’s gay marriage referendum: an exercise in game theory and ballot design

A genuine Slovak portable ballot box.
(Photo: Lišiak/Wikimedia Commons)
Voters in Slovakia rejected three referenda asking voters to ban same-sex marriage, adoption by same-sex couples, and compulsory sex education yesterday.

Referenda in Slovakia are only legally binding if 50 percent of eligible voters—in this case, 2,205,765 out of 4,411,529 voters—actually cast a ballot. So while more than 90 percent of people who voted on the ballot questions voted “yes,” voter turnout was less than 22 percent. With insufficient turnout, the referenda won’t take effect.

This was the strategy adopted by LGBT activists in Slovakia: rather than asking voters to vote “no,” they urged voters not to cast a ballot at all. It’s a sound strategy, because—assuming everybody who wants to reject the referenda is on the same page—voting “no” can only improve the chances of the referenda passing.

For convenience’s sake, let’s say there are exactly four million eligible voters in Slovakia. If 1,999,999 voters vote “yes” on a referendum, and nobody votes “no,” the referendum is rejected due to insufficient turnout.

But if 1,999,999 voters vote “yes” and one person votes “no,” the referendum passes.

In fact, the theoretical smallest number of “yes” votes required for passage in this example would be 1,000,001—assuming 999,999 people voted “no.”

In the case of this past vote, it looks like Slovaks who wanted to reject the referenda were on the same page and mostly stayed home instead of voting “no.” But there’s an interesting bit of game theory involved with deciding whether to stay home or to cast a “no” ballot:

Assuming you think your fellow referendum-rejecters are completely rational, it’s obviously best to stay home and not vote at all.

But if you think enough of your referendum-rejecters haven’t thought it through and will show up to vote “no”—enough to push turnout over 50 percent but not enough to make up 50 percent of those who do vote—then you need to show up to vote “no,” so that the “no” vote has a fighting chance of winning.

But then if you don’t necessarily think referendum-rejecters are stupidly going to vote “no,” but you think enough referendum-rejecters think that enough referendum-rejecters are stupid enough to vote “no” and will subsequently vote “no” themselves, then you need to vote “no” as well. Which is bananas, right?

And there’s another wrinkle to this, too. These three referenda are bundled together on the same ballot. If blank responses—that is, checking neither “yes” nor “no”—count toward the turnout tally, that may explain why those who voted “no” did so: it’s not stupidity, but rather, a split ballot. They may have very strongly wanted to vote “yes” on one question (say, banning compulsory sex education) but weren’t in favor of another (like banning same-sex adoption). Since they’re contributing to the turnout even if they leave the adoption ban question blank, they decide to vote “no.” Which is yet another factor in the game theory calculus for referendum-rejecters—are there enough ballot splitters to push turnout over 50 percent?

In this particular ballot, the questions deal with related topics, and there’s a good chance that “yes” voters will vote “yes” for all three, and “no” voters will do the same. But there’s plenty of opportunity for monkeyshines in this setup—what if the questions were phrased differently, like asking voters to ban same-sex marriage (so that the “no” vote is the pro-LGBT vote) in one question and approve same-sex adoption (so that the “yes” vote is the pro-LGBT vote) in another?

Or what if they bundled together unrelated questions that could scramble voting coalitions? I don’t know anything about Slovak politics, but if this referendum system were in place in the United States, it’d be hard to figure out the correct strategy if the ballot questions concerned, say, mandatory vaccination, gun control, and marijuana legalization.

In any case, it highlights a quirk of democracy—that the way you let people vote can play a huge role in how that vote ends up. An ideal voting method is one in which no game theory is required as a voter; you merely express how you feel without worrying about what other people are doing.

But that rarely happens. As a result, it’s worth remembering that who’s designing our ballots can be just as important as what’s on them.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

“Plunging vertically, lightly clinking / It won’t attract anyone’s attention”

Congratulations to Apple! The company just posted the biggest quarterly profit—$18 billion—in world history.

To commemorate the achievement, here's a poem written by former Foxconn factory worker Xu Lizhi, published in the Foxconn employee newspaper.

A screw fell to the ground
In this dark night of overtime
Plunging vertically, lightly clinking
It won’t attract anyone’s attention
Just like last time
On a night like this
When someone plunged to the ground

He's a former employee because he, like many of his fellow Foxconn employees, killed himself last year after working under Foxconn's harsh and sometimes inhumane labor conditions in Shenzhen. He was 24.

While we're at it, we can also reread the New York Times's blockbuster 2012 story about Foxconn and the Apple supply chain that we all swore would make us give a shit, but then Apple came out with candy-colored iPhones the next year and we all totally wanted one. (Mine's yellow!)



It's cool, though, because that one dude who was on This American Life turned out to be a liar, which was just the perfect opportunity to stop caring.

So again—congrats, Apple!

Posted via the Blogger iOS app


Yes, Apple is far from the only company that uses Foxconn. But now that Apple is, for the moment, officially the most profitable company on the planet, it highlights how much could be done but isn't, and how few people genuinely care. (And since caring should only be measured by one's actions rather than feelings, I'm ashamed to say that I easily fall into the "don't care" camp.) And for all the talk about how Apple's $18 billion was built on good old-fashioned American innovation and gumption, it's worth remembering that it was also built on the despair and misery and sometimes deaths of Chinese laborers with few—or no—other options.

And while blame can be parceled out to Foxconn for perpetrating labor abuses and the Chinese government for turning a blind eye to such abuses, Apple and its customers deserve much of it, too. There's almost no demand for a bloodless iPhone, especially if it means paying more for it. And again, virtually every smartphone and tablet seller uses Foxconn or a Foxconn-esque supplier, but $18 billion means that Apple is in a uniquely powerful position to do something about it if they really wanted to. Or, as a former Apple executive put it in that New York Times article:
“We’ve known about labor abuses in some factories for four years, and they’re still going on,” said one former Apple executive who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality agreements. “Why? Because the system works for us. Suppliers would change everything tomorrow if Apple told them they didn’t have another choice.”

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Abercrombie & ditched: Mike Jeffries is out as CEO; I dance on his professional grave

Mike Jeffries resigned as CEO of Abercrombie & Fitch on Dec. 9.

This is certainly good news, as Jeffries is notorious for being an asshole of impressive magnitude. Under his leadership, Abercrombie & Fitch was sued in 2003 for employment discrimination for racist and sexist hiring practices; apparently, Jeffries loved him some white dudes, and this was reflected in who was hired for his stores and who got the best jobs once they were hired. (This is a polite way of saying that women, black people, Hispanics, and Asians had a tough time getting hired, and those that did often worked out-of-sight in the backroom.) The lawsuit ended in a settlement that included the company paying $40 million to discriminated workers and a revision of its hiring and promotion practices.

Jeffries also earned a lot of ire over some well-publicized remarks about who Abercrombie & Fitch’s target market is. From a 2006 interview with Salon:

“In every school there are the cool and popular kids, and then there are the not-so-cool kids,” he says. “Candidly, we go after the cool kids. We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends. A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely. Those companies that are in trouble are trying to target everybody: young, old, fat, skinny. But then you become totally vanilla. You don’t alienate anybody, but you don’t excite anybody, either.”

I mean, in a way, the candor is laudable, but yikes.

In any case, Abercrombie & Fitch’s falling profits and brand image had put Jeffries’s future with the company in jeopardy in recent years, so while his resignation happened quickly, it wasn’t exactly unexpected. To be fair, many mall clothing retailers are suffering, thanks in part to the recession and teens with lighter wallets and changing tastes.

But Abercrombie & Fitch—by far the priciest of what some1 call the Teen Mall Clothing Triple A, along with American Eagle and Aéropostale—was probably the most doomed in the wake of the recession. Abercrombie & Fitch appealed to kids who weren’t rich but wanted to appear rich; when the recession hit, the faux rich kids couldn’t afford their clothes anymore and the real rich kids weren’t buying their clothes from them in the first place. And once that became evident, fewer and fewer people felt compelled to don the moose.

So let’s take a moment to dance on the professional grave of Jeffries, a creepy dude with creepy fake blonde hair who appealed to the basest parts of American vanity and consumerism and still found a way to fuck it up. I hope he enjoys his retirement while he can, because once he passes, he will surely find himself damned to an afterlife where I presume a bunch of larger folks wearing Faded Glory-brand jean shorts and camo cargos will pelt him with copies of the September issue of Farm & Tractor Fashion for all eternity2.

* * *

In any case, Jeffries’s resignation reminded me of a small little project I did with a friend several years ago. We sneaked into an Abercrombie & Fitch and a Hollister at the mall and surreptitiously placed little activist flyers into their clothing. I thought we were being sneaky, until a customer asked us a question about a price, and we had to explain we don’t actually work there (“Oh, I’m sorry, I just saw you guys handling the clothes and I just assumed—my bad”).

Granted, the flyers don’t reflect my best writing or my best thinking, and rereading them, they make me cringe a bit. But I still look at them fondly, because I liked this version of myself that cared strongly about things and devised weird and quirky plans to express my opinions. Let’s take a look at a sampling of my efforts:


This one took an anti-consumerism and anti-advertising angle and, in particular, the inanity of paying a company money for the right to advertise on your body. It’s interesting that I picked $59 as the upper-limit for ridiculous prices to pay for a logo graphic T-shirt.


Here was a flyer that took a feminist tack, albeit with some sloppy, inelegant writing (if you’re going to sound cavalier about eating disorders, then your writing better be coruscating). I believe I was floating the theory that teen clothing retailers intentionally making clothing sizes inconsistent to mess with girls’ body image and sense of self-esteem, which is ultimately beneficial for Abercrombie & Fitch and other image-based retailers—a theory that, as far as I know, has no evidence behind it, but kind of plausible, right? Also, I’m not sure where I saw “Independent Grrl” booty shorts, but I think it’d be hilarious to own a pair.


So basically, at some point, I thought, “You know how to get the message out in a way that resonates with my generation? Get some John fuckin’ Keats up in this shit!” This is proof that, had I majored in English, I would’ve been the most obnoxious person ever. But still, the last line is the beginning of a burn that could’ve been decent with a bit more workshopping.


1By “some,” I mean “I.” But it is a handy way of looking at the teen mall clothing retailer landscape, right? Aéropostale is the budget choice; American Eagle is moderately priced and of moderate quality; and Abercrombie & Fitch is the highest tier. (I don’t mean this as a dig, by the way. One of my favorite T-shirts is from Aéropostale—a gift from a family friend—despite my having graduated middle school. But it's a really comfortable shirt and I love it so there.)

2That’s probably a little too mean.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

How to be reflexively dismissive of a woman who says she was raped, in a flow chart

With the allegations of Bill Cosby being a serial rapist propelled into public consciousness due in no small part to a devastating Hannibal Buress bit that went viral recently, it's fascinating -- in a horrible way -- to see how reflexively some people dismiss women who say that they've been raped.



Obviously, we should take women who say that they've been raped seriously. Rape is underreported, false accusations are rare, and given the skepticism and abuse that's often thrown at women who do come forward, how we react to any particular allegation affects whether women in the future feel safe reporting rape. The way we treat a rape victim in the present redounds to countless more rape victims in the future, and it's important to create a future where rape victims aren't afraid or ashamed to stand up for themselves and seek justice.

Similarly, we should take those who are accused of rape seriously when they say they didn't commit the crime. Although false accusations are rare, they're not unheard of, and if a man is the (statistically unfortunate) victim of a lie, it can destroy his life -- a cloud of suspicion can follow him, even if there's an official exoneration. Though it's not at all comparable to being a victim of rape, being a victim of a false accusation of rape is still terrible and its own sort of tragedy.

Saying "take the accusers and the accused seriously," of course, is nice and pat and somewhat unrealistic. Everybody has their own experiences and gut instincts, and jurors in the court of public opinion aren't bound by any legal standard on which to base a verdict. ("Presumed innocent until proven guilty" doesn't apply out of a courtroom, after all.)

So when some people recoil at the idea of a beloved figure like Bill Cosby being a rapist, it's not exactly surprising. (Look at a supposedly progressive MSNBC host named Joy Reid and her guest discuss the allegations -- not with concern for the alleged victims or the problem of rape, but by fretting over how Cosby's legacy is on the line and how he can manage the crisis, because, you know, journalism.) What's decidedly not okay is when the recoiling takes the form of automatic, knee-jerk dismissals.



Women who come forward with rape allegations are often put in a no-win situation, where every action or inaction is "proof" that they're lying or crazy or greedy or attention-hungry. Nobody is saying we have to automatically believe every rape accusation with complete certitude irrespective of the evidence and circumstances, but we shouldn't automatically disbelieve every one, either.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Fat girl costumes

Walmart apologized Monday after visitors to its website discovered its section for plus-size women's Halloween costumes was labeled "Fat Girl Costumes."


Walmart's social media team repeatedly tweeted,

This never should have been on our site. It is unacceptable, and we apologize. We worked quickly to remove this.

or some variation thereof to customers mentioning the incident on Twitter.

Our culture is one that makes "being fat" among the worst sins a woman can commit, and the cruelty and vitriol with which the word "fat" is hurled at overweight people has made the word much more pejorative than merely descriptive. So I completely get why people found a section bluntly called "Fat Girl Costumes" cringeworthy.

But the incident made me think of this amazing scene from the third episode of the past season of Louie, Louis CK's FX show.



In the scene, Louie talks with his date about the difficulty of dating. His date, sympathetic, says, "Try dating in New York in your late thirties as a fat girl."

Louie immediately insists that she's "not fat," and his date launches into a remarkable monologue that begins with, "Do you know what the meanest thing is you can say to a fat girl? 'You're not fat.'"

So, it kind of feels like Walmart is saying "You're not fat."

I get why Walmart apologized, even beyond simple PR -- the word "fat" can be hurtful. And outside of corporate communications, I actually think there's value in what others might dismiss as political correctness; when you use a euphemism like "plus-size" instead of "fat," it can be a way of signaling, "I care about you and how you feel, so I'm going to use a word that I hope has less of a chance of hurting you." That's thoughtful, and thoughtfulness is good.

But I wonder if Walmart had tried the opposite strategy: What if Walmart kept the section titled "Fat Girl Costumes," and just said, "Hey, there's nothing wrong with being a fat girl, and we don't think it's an insult. If we change it, that's just us admitting that we think that being a fat girl is bad. So we're leaving it up."

Walmart PR is not in the business of social change, so there's no reason they'd take anything but the path of least resistance. But I'm curious what would really be more comforting to a girl who's overweight: a company apologizing because "fat" is so unacceptable, or a company shrugging because there's nothing wrong with "fat."

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

“The women, all educated and employed...”

Jian Ghomeshi, a popular Canadian radio host on the CBC, was fired following allegations of sexual violence from three different women and one instance of sexual harassment of a coworker (he allegedly told her that he wants to “hate fuck” her).

Ghomeshi, in turn, posted a lengthy Facebook post denying the accusations as “false allegations pursued by a jilted ex-girlfriend and a freelance writer” and suggests that the CBC fired him simply because they were uncomfortable with him enjoying BDSM in his private life. He’s suing the CBC for $55 million.

Not knowing anything about Ghomeshi or his work, I don’t really have much to say about whether he’s right or wrong (although—speaking purely from a PR perspective—he seriously did himself no favors with that lame, self-martyring Facebook post, which almost sounds like he’s humblebragging about how crazy his sex life is). But I did want to point out this line in the Toronto Star’s story, published on Oct. 26, emphasis mine:

The Star’s interviews of the women were lengthy. The women, all educated and employed, said Ghomeshi’s actions shocked them.

Many people have pointed out how unsettling it is that the Toronto Star decided that the education and employment status of the women is germane to the discussion of possible sexual violence committed against them.

It’s easy to understand why the reporters decided to include it (and why their editor decided to keep it in): it was a way to preemptively answer questions about the women’s credibility. By mentioning that they’re educated and employed, it signals that these women have less reason to lie—they have careers that they presumably wouldn’t jeopardize with dishonesty. And because they have educations, their careers are likely ones that pay reasonably well, so these women probably aren’t necessarily planning to profit off their allegations. “All educated and employed” was the Star’s way of saying, in essence, “It’s not what you’re thinking—take them seriously!”

If that is indeed the reasoning, it’s still incredibly depressing that the Star reporters figured enough of their readers would instinctively cast mental aspersions on the women that they felt compelled to head that off. It’s even more depressing to think that the reporters were right; I don’t doubt that there were some readers who were skeptical, came to that line, and subsequently gave the women’s stories a little more credence. And needless to say, the unspoken corollary—if these women weren’t educated or weren’t employed, then maybe it’d be okay to shrug them off—is pretty repugnant.

I don’t mean to bag on the Star reporters too much here; this sort of thing happens, in one form or another, all the time. A girl or a woman is the victim of sexual harassment, assault, or violence, and as a way of bolstering her credibility, we’re told why we should afford her, unlike some other victims, the benefit of the doubt:

  • She’s educated and employed.
  • She comes from a good family.
  • She doesn’t sleep around.
  • She didn’t wear slutty clothes.
  • She wasn’t drunk or high.
  • She never made these sorts of accusations before.
  • She doesn’t have any sort of troubled past or mental health issues.

If we keep codifying which women deserve the benefit of the doubt, what we’re really doing is helping potential rapists put together a profile of an ideal victim—that is, a victim who will have the hardest time getting people to take her seriously, or, more bluntly, a victim whom the rapist will have the greatest chance of getting away with raping. The notion of a woman being targeted specifically because she’s poor, uneducated, and unemployed, or specifically because she likes having sex, wearing sexy clothes, and drinking, or specifically because she’s been raped in her past or because she has a history of mental health issues is both horrifying and horrifying plausible.